• Leah Norman


Dealing with a "heat of the moment" resignation

Heated discussions, frank exchanges of views and what can best be described as "major bust-ups" can happen in even the most harmonious of workplaces. The result can sometimes lead to a heat of the moment resignation that sees the employee walking off the job only to then change their mind the following day. As such, an employee who resigns in the "heat of the moment", when they were angry, upset or otherwise emotionally distressed, may not have made a rational decision to actually "quit their job" and might regret it. In these situations an employer that does not allow an employee to retract a heat-of-the-moment resignation may be at risk of a PG; unfair dismissal claim.

As a general rule applicable to most situations when an employee resigns, they cannot then unilaterally withdraw that resignation, claiming "heat of the moment" just because they change their mind. It will normally be the employer’s decision, not the employee's, as to whether or not they can do this, particularly if unambiguous words such as “I resign” or “I quit” have been used.

In these circumstances, the employer should consider giving the employee the opportunity to retract their resignation after they have had time to calm down.

However, there are a few exceptions to this, particularly where an employee might resign or say something that could be interpreted as a resignation, in the heat of the moment, (for example, following an argument or when they are emotionally distressed), and is then promptly retracted.

The Employment Relations Authority have previously held that where there are "special circumstances", apparently unambiguous words should be considered in context and it would be risky for an employer to rely on that resignation without further investigation. These "special circumstances" have been held to include pressures on an employee (for example, provocation or coercion by a manager) as well as the employee’s own personality (for example, an immature employee or an employee with stress and/or work-related issues).

If a heat of the moment resignation is given and you feel that there may be "special circumstances" that have contributed to the resignation, it is sensible to allow a reasonable period of time to elapse before accepting the purported resignation. The employee may well turn up for work the next day, tail between their legs, in which case serious consideration should be given to allowing them to stay on – potentially against a background of disciplinary proceedings for poor behaviour. If, on the other hand, the person does not return to work, it is advisable to check with them – preferably in writing – whether or not they are sure about their decision and to require the employee to provide a written resignation letter.

What is a reasonable period of time will depend, to a degree, on the facts, but a day or two is likely to be sufficient in most cases. In these limited circumstances, a failure to allow such a cooling off period and the immediate acceptance of the heat of the moment resignation may lead to a tribunal subsequently concluding that an employee has not resigned, but rather has been dismissed by his employer.

"Are they leaving or not?"

Sometimes an employee’s true intentions in respect of their continued employment may be unclear. Often tied in with "heat of the moment" conversations, what should an employer do when faced with comments from an employee such as “I’ve had enough of this job” or “I’m off”?

It may sometimes be tempting to simply accept an ambiguous heat of the moment resignation – particularly where you may be keen to see the back of the person in question. However, this does leave scope for the employee to argue that they had not meant to resign and that the employer has overreacted. In these circumstances, the ERA would look at the facts and ask what a reasonable employer would have understood the words to mean in the circumstances. This exercise would involve consideration of events both preceding and following the words or actions in question.

To avoid this risk, seek clarification of the position from the employee by asking them to confirm their resignation in writing. While a resignation need not be in writing to be effective, getting an unambiguously worded resignation letter will make it more difficult for an employee to subsequently argue that he or she had been dismissed.

Key Takeaways

  1. Always check with the employee whether they intend to resign.

  2. If it is a potential heat of the moment situation, allow at least 24 hours for the employee to cool off before they ask the employee to confirm whether they do want to resign. This will give the employee time to calm down and reflect and then either 1) withdraw their resignation, 2)confirm that they didn’t intend to resign. or 3) confirm that they did intend to resign.

  3. Ask the employee to confirm what they want to do in writing.

Accepting a heat of the moment resignation could have a negative effect on your business. For example, if you accept the resignation while investigating either an alleged misconduct or performance situation, your organisation could face a claim of constructive dismissal if handled incorrectly. The employer must not just assume that the employee intended to resign in this situation.

Disclaimer This article, and any information contained on our website is necessarily brief and general in nature, and should not be substituted for professional advice. You should always seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters addressed.